Community-Based Research and Engagement

Exciting Collaboration on Evaluation as a Means of Community-Based Research and Engagement

May 30, 2019

By Samuel Chen

Community engagement is an emerging form of research and practice around the world.  Recently I had the opportunity to meet Rachel Nelson, Associate Director of Partnerships & Programs from the SFU Surrey-TD Community Engagement Centre.

Rachel had first met our Director of Research, Cindy Xin, a few years ago at the C2U expo, a conference showcasing university and community connections.  They immediately connected over opportunities for community engagement work and the potential for program evaluation as a tool for this.  Two years later, the SFU Surrey-TD Community Engagement Centre and the Research Hub are just wrapping up a collaborative program evaluation project for an Early Learning for Families program.

Can you tell me about the SFU Surrey-TD Community Engagement Centre?

The Center was created six years ago to connect the growing South Fraser and Surrey communities with SFU.  The SFU Surrey – TD Community Engagement Centre as a place-based entity provides an opportunity for SFU to connect with people and organizations in Surrey in a genuine way through collaboration, the sharing of resources and the co-creation of ideas and solutions to build more resilient communities. Engaging the community in an authentic way, to us, means that we see ourselves as an embedded part of the community.

The SFU Surrey –TD CEC offers programming in partnership with community organizations with a focus on supporting children, youth and newcomers to Canada. We believe in the importance of reflecting the strengths, assets and needs of the community through our programming and engagement with partners. The current focus on supporting children, youth and newcomers to Canada was born out of consistent listening and learning for where we can add value in the community and how we can link benefits back to SFU through student experiential learning, research, and strengthening community partnerships.

The SFU Surrey - TD Community Engagement Centre (SFU CEC) operates with generous funding from the TD Bank Group and works with community organizations to offer and support between 20-25 different programs and events per year reaching over 2500 members of the community and involving around 200 volunteers.

What kinds of projects does the SFU Surrey-TD Community Engagement Centre work on?

One example is the Tutoring, Homework and English Support Program in partnership with Friends of Simon and the Surrey City Centre Library. This program employs high-talent university students to work with local children and youth from newcomer and refugee families in relationship-based learning. The program focuses on building community capacity in literacy and numeracy while providing valuable learning experiences for SFU students. Another example of a project that has shown a lot of promise for early childhood education is the Racing Readers after-school program, which is being offered at two different elementary schools. This program focuses on building literacy, numeracy and physical skills with children in grades 2-5 while providing an opportunity for SFU students to participate in and learn from their community in a meaningful way. The program is now entering into its fifth year.

Recently you reached out to the Research Hub as a partner to conduct an evaluation of the Surrey Early Learning for Families (ELF) Drop-in Program at Surrey City Shopping Centre.  Can you tell us more about this?

This play-based early learning program is similar to the popular Strong Start program offered in many elementary schools and community centers in the Lower Mainland but is unique in that it is held as a pop-up program at the Surrey City Shopping Centre through a collaboration between the Shopping Centre, the Surrey School District, and SFU. The reason for offering the ELF program in this format is to increase access to early learning. Since early Learning programming mostly operates out of schools, the result is that Early Learning programs are not available to families who, for whatever reason, are not yet engaging with the school system in schools. Modeled after existing Early Learning initiatives, this program brings Early Learning activities out of the schools and into the public arena, allowing an engagement with brand new and underserved demographics.

The Surrey ELF drop-in program has been running since 2013 and has grown significantly in popularity. Approximately 2 years ago through a conversation with one of the program facilitators, we realized that the benefits of ELF may be extending beyond our initial expectations of early learning outcomes. We concluded that it would be valuable to look further and deeper into the impact the program was having in the community. This is when I reached out to Dr. Cindy Xin, the Director of Research for the Faculty of Education’s Research Hub to explore conducting an evaluation for the program.

Over the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Cindy and a Research Assistant from her team, Bronwen McCann, to design an evaluation and develop a report that will be very informative to all the key stakeholders of the program.

What are your thoughts on community-based research as a means for the university to engage with community?

I think community-based research is a powerful way for the university and community to work together on addressing the complex challenges our society is facing in the 21st century. Bringing together the strengths and assets of the academy and community in ways that enable the co-creation of knowledge, I think, has the potential to create lasting and meaningful change on issues that matter to us all. This kind of work has been happening at SFU for many years in different pockets of the institution; however, currently the community relies on their personal connections with individuals within SFU to navigate the university and move forward on ideas and opportunities for research. That is one of the reasons why I thought the evaluative work with the Faculty of Education’s Research Hub on the ELF program was so exciting - it points to a growing institutional appetite for more structured processes to facilitate community-engaged research in more intentional ways.  

Personally I am also very passionate about this topic.  My Master’s thesis work was on principle-based ways of evaluating community engagement at the institutional level. As SFU moves forward with this work, I look forward to seeing how shared foundational values and principles that guide the process of our work with communities affects the outcomes we hope to achieve from these endeavors.

I am very much looking forward to exploring future opportunities to collaborate on community-based research with the Faculty of Education’s Research Hub.